New Delhi: Ghajini, a psychological thriller about a man who loses his memory every 15 minutes and how he avenges the brutal murder of his fiancee, released on Christmas day in 2008. It went on to change the economics of movie making forever in Bollywood, as the Hindi movie industry is known.

Starring Aamir Khan in the lead role, the movie made by Tamil director A.R. Murugadoss, a name unknown to Hindi movie fans until then, earned 55 crore in its first week’s run and in 18 days flat went on to top 100 crore (US$15.21 million) in domestic box office receipts, according to the website www.bollywoodhungama.com.

Overnight, 100 crore (and how fast it was achieved) became the new benchmark of box office success in the world’s most prolific movie industry.

Since then, 38 movies have topped the mark, two surpassing 300 crore and five earning in excess of 200 crore, according to Bollywood Hungama.

Adjusted for movie ticket-price inflation, other films such as Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (1994), Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge (1995) and Gadar: Ek Prem Katha (2001) may have made as much money, but they were released in an era when single-screen theatres, and silver and golden jubilee runs (25- and 50-week screenings) were still the norm.

“This (Ghajini) was the first time a film had earned that much so quickly, given that the lifespan of films was coming down," said Atul Mohan, editor of the trade magazine Complete Cinema.

These days, when a multiplex movie ticket costs in excess of 300-400 (compared with 30-40 for a top-tier single-screen ticket 10 years ago), few Bollywood movies have the legs to run beyond four weeks. A movie’s success depends on its box-office performance in the first couple of weeks.

Up to 80% of a film’s theatrical revenue these days is collected in the first week of release, which, for a big movie, is spread across several hundred screens, thanks to film digitization.

“It’s all about the business within the first three days and the opening week," said trade analyst Komal Nahta. “You can’t afford to start slow."

This approach also helps combat piracy—still rampant in Bollywood.

Bollywood producer-director Sajid Nadiadwala compares the 100 crore phenomenon to the trend in Hollywood, where $1 billion in worldwide box-office collections became the milestone for a monster hit once James Cameron’s Titanic achieved the mark in 1997, and was followed by the Pirates of the Caribbean series and Cameron’s 2009 movie Avatar that established new benchmarks. This year, Furious 7 became the fastest to pass $1 billion, doing so in 17 days.

Defunct and outdated

Nadiadwala’s own Kick and 2 States, both of which released last year, are part of the 100 crore club. Kick, his first directorial venture, starred action star Salman Khan, whose last eight films have all grossed more than 100 crore at the Indian box office.

In the South, films such as Magadheera (2009, Telugu), Endhiran (2010, Tamil), Linga (2014, Tamil), I (2015, Tamil), and the most recent Baahubali (2015, Telugu and Tamil) have also racked up collections well in excess of 100 crore.

Salman Khan’s 2015 film Bajrangi Bhaijaan, which the actor also co-produced, collected 320.34 crore after releasing on 17 July, making it the second biggest Bollywood hit after the Aamir Khan starrer PK (2014, 340.8 crore). It took just three days to cross 100 crore, one day fewer than PK, illustrating how fast the gap has narrowed since the days of Ghajini.

“The 100 crore mark is now defunct and outdated. The 100 crore soon evolved into 200 crore and now 300 crore," said Nandu Ahuja, senior vice-president (India theatrical) at Eros International, a Mumbai-based production and distribution house that has backed money-spinners such as Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Tanu Weds Manu Returns and Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela.

The entry of professional movie production houses—Disney, Viacom 18 Motion Pictures and Fox Star Studios have entered India in recent years and local film companies have become more corporatized—has increased the importance of and the focus on box-office collections in a movie industry that earned 9,350 crore in domestic theatrical revenue last year, according to the 2015 report on the media and entertainment industry prepared by KPMG and industry lobby group Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci).

“There is more inclination to announce your success," said Amar Butala, chief operating officer, Salman Khan Films. “But 100 crore is a minuscule figure, considering the number of films we make and how tight our theatrical windows are. That number definitely needs to be upped."

To be sure, the real blockbusters have been making more money.

Of the nine Bollywood films that earned at least 100 crore last year, PK went on to gross in excess of 340 crore and Kick more than 230 crore. The Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Happy New Year made 203 crore.

Still, that’s only true for the big films that corporate houses such as Eros International back.

“For an average film with a budget of 25-30 crore, 100 crore is still a coveted target, besides being completely achievable," said trade analyst Nahta.

Cost-revenue equation

Even so, in 2014, the gap between the top 10 films and the rest widened further, according to the KPMG-Ficci report.

The gross collections of the top 10 films grew by 2.4% in 2014 over 2013; for the next 10 films, they dropped by 3%.

The top 10 films account for 47% of the industry’s revenue, according to the film website www.koimoi.com.

The success of a movie ultimately depends on how much it costs to make and how much it ends up earning at the box office, but there’s more nuance to the numbers.

“These box-office indicators are a good yardstick to evaluate how a film may have done, but one must know how to interpret them," said Nahta. “In no case does the 100 crore come entirely to the producer. The ratio of sharing with the exhibitors keeps changing. But it remains somewhere around 50%. So it’s incorrect to say a film ‘made’ 100 crore. But, yes, it definitely ‘generated’ 100 core."

In the 1980s and 1990s, a movie’s success was measured in terms of seat occupancy.

The late producer-director-actor Feroz Khan’s 1980 smash hit Qurbani, for example, did 100% business in the first week, 98% in the second, 92% in the third and so on, said Pahlaj Nihalani, president of the Association of Motion Pictures and TV Program Producers.

“The 100 crore figure doesn’t indicate whether it’s a profit or business of 100 crore," he said. “Corporate houses put out gross collections without letting people know that the net amount which the maker finally gets is usually 40% of it."

The 100 crore phenomenon is part of the changing economics of movie making, which has become very expensive, mainly because of soaring star remunerations.

In the 1990s, no top-bracket star demanded a per-movie fee beyond a few lakhs of rupees.

Today, every top actor charges in crores, and usually double digits at that; some also demand and receive a part of the revenue that the movie makes.

That’s reflected in the latest Forbes magazine list of the top-earning actors. Amitabh Bachchan and Salman Khan each made $33.5 million last year to tie at seventh place in the list of 34 actors. Akshay Kumar, who makes four movies a year, ranked ninth with $32.5 million in annual earnings. Shah Rukh ranked 18th with earnings of $26 million. Ranbir Kapoor was 30th with $15 million in earnings.

Production values

The Forbes listing included what the stars made from product endorsements and hosting shows on television.

Movie costs have also surged because of increased emphasis on production values. Most big-budget films are shot in exotic locations. Marketing costs, too, have increased. In the 1990s, a producer may have typically spent 1 crore on a film’s pre-release promotion; 10-15 crore is the norm now.

Not surprisingly, a low-budget movie that scores at the box office, even if it doesn’t end up making 100 crore, holds more value for producers. “A real success for us is a film like Tanu Weds Manu Returns that earned more than 150 crore when (it was) made with 30 crore," said Ahuja of Eros International. “Or even movies like English Vinglish and Vicky Donor that made 41-43 crore domestically."

Some movie makers justify the expenses on marketing and promotion.

“Your film really needs to call audiences to theatres," said Vijay Krishna Acharya, director of the 2013 release Dhoom 3, which grossed 284.27 crore at the domestic box office. “Attention spans are so limited and ticket prices so high. We’re anyway in a business of manipulating emotions. But each film needs to be positioned truthfully so that people don’t feel cheated."

For his own film, Acharya believes less was more. The film was not just grittier than others in the Dhoom franchise but also not as feel-good in the sense that the character played by Aamir Khan meets a tragic end. The makers (Yash Raj Films) didn’t want to let on the fact that Aamir Khan played a double role in the movie. So, they kept the publicity relatively low-key.

Holiday promotions

Eros International’s Ahuja says that a production house risks putting off audiences if it doesn’t communicate with them. From showing the first teaser or trailer to distribution and exhibition to pricing, everything needs to be just right.

“Like for Bajrangi Bhaijaan, which we released on Eid, we kept prices high during the festive season and brought them down later," Ahuja said. “It’s all about building that base and then letting the content speak. Distribution, marketing, promotion and content, all go hand-in-glove. They add value to each other."

Apart from promotional strategies, positioning a film during a festive season has also become the norm. The holidays help the star cast in pulling fans to the theatres. In fact, the buzz now is about how a lot of films constantly compete with each other to capture holiday release spots. Salman Khan dominates release dates around Eid; Aamir Khan, Christmas and Shah Rukh Khan, Diwali.

“Big-ticket films depend enormously on holidays," said Atul Mohan of Complete Cinema. “Look at Salman Khan’s Jai Ho, that released during a non-holiday period. It earned only about 120 crore, which is much less when compared with his other films."

But are numbers the sole measure of success? What of critical acclaim?

Just a number

“What is wrong with it?" asks S.S. Rajamouli, the newest entrant to the club with his multi-lingual film Baahubali. “I make entertainers and commercial films and I want them to reach audiences."

He is supported by Sajid Nadiadwala, who says the numbers eliminate any sense of ambiguity about how a film may have fared. “Terms like hit, superhit and average exist only in India. In that sense, we’re becoming more like Hollywood, where it’s all out there and you can’t cheat either the public or the critics," he said. “Numbers are an indicator of how many people have seen the film."

And it’s not just about that one film.

“We’re all in the business and here to make profitable films. Only when these films do well will more good films get made," said Butala of Salman Khan Films despite the company’s star owner himself having insisted several times that he doesn’t understand the 100 crore game at all.

Acharya of Dhoom 3 fame thinks the 100 crore phenomenon has attracted way too much attention. While his own film needed to get into that select club, given its high budget and large format, what was more important to him was that it crossed 200 crore in its lifetime collection, a number since reached and exceeded by PK and Bajrangi Bhaijaan.

“It was a good thing to have come about in the sense that we could all strive to make 100 crore films because there was an audience for it. But then, it turned into a blind race," Acharya said. “It was no longer about the joy of making or watching a film but the kind of money it made. And I find that troubling."

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